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This Old House: A tour guide reports from the Benjamin Franklin House in London

On my first day working in London’s Benjamin Franklin House, I cracked open a window and overheard one of the many tours of the city that passed by the House. “This is where Ben Franklin lived the longest in his adult life. Franklin is of course best known for being president of the United States, but he was a fascinating man with many other interests besides — ” The tour guide’s authoritative voice faded down the street, along with dutifully shuffling feet and a stroller struggling down the bumpy sidewalk. I sprang to my feet. “Did you hear that?” I demanded of my manager, Tara. “Can I run out and correct the guide, so he doesn’t keep talking about President Franklin for the rest of his tours?”

Tara sighed and leaned to open the window a little wider, gesturing down the street. The House was nestled in a quiet side alley just off of London’s bustling Strand, a throughway bisecting the central part of the city. “Carrie, think of everything their tour might cover.” The view out of the window expanded in my mental map, broadening to a kilometer or two on each side of the House. The widened view comfortably accommodated Trafalgar Square, the stone lions and Nelson’s Column, the London Eye spinning lazily, and the steel triangles of the Golden Jubilee bridges sweeping over the Thames, which sliced London open like a jagged jewel. Tara continued to talk, pointing out that with so much history to take in, people would inevitably get disoriented, and minor details would escape them. Having a vague sense of the saturated history of the area was already good enough. “At the end of the day, we have to applaud the fact that they’re out here at all,” she reminded me. “Surely that counts for something.” I studied history in college, reading entire books just for the accuracy of a single footnote. I was starting to sense that the House, a site of public history, was a series of careful negotiations between what can be known and what has been preserved, always mediating between accessibility, accuracy, and memorability. I wondered uneasily if I could ever become comfortable with those compromises.

The tour guide did get one fact right: Surprisingly, this handsome Georgian brownstone was indeed the house that Franklin lived in for the longest time of his adult life — not Boston, where he was born, and not Philadelphia, the city he’s most strongly associated with. The very fact that the house has been preserved at all is remarkable, making it a freakishly lucky building that survived untold fires, property grabs, and even two World Wars. What makes this address, 36 Craven Street, Benjamin Franklin’s house? He could’ve just as easily lived in numbers 34 or 38, both addresses now gorgeous flats. The house next door had recently been put on the market, and out of curiosity, I looked it up online. It was on offer for 3 million pounds. There are photos of that house in the online listing, sporting all of the fashionable clichés in interior décor: exposed hardwood floors, angular jutting overhangs, illuminated shadowboxes over the stairs.

The same set of redecorations could have easily befallen the Benjamin Franklin House, but because of Franklin’s fame, every pain had been taken to preserve it instead. In Britain’s national heritage organization, the House is a Grade 1 listed building, meaning that it’s of “exceptional” interest both architecturally and historically. (Nearby Buckingham Palace is but a Grade 2building.) These listings are designed to prevent historic sites from being shortsightedly destroyed for profit, and so the honor comes with a set of draconian regulations. The staff of the House must write for permission to install so much as a lamp, and central heating or AC is strictly forbidden inside the House itself. The House’s Annex contains its gift shop, and during the hottest days of the summer, we would lounge there sleepily, electric fans blasting, gently ruffling the Franklin quote posters: “BEER IS PROOF THAT GOD LOVES US AND WANTS US TO BE HAPPY.”

The Grade 1 listing and its demands for accuracy are the primary countervailing force on the House’s pragmatism about what visitors can realistically learn and absorb. Sometimes, these efforts verge on the absurd. During the museum’s restoration, conservationists used spectrometry to figure out the paint color when Franklin lived there. They went back something like thirty layers of paint, past kids growing up and moving out, divorces, and decorating decisions made on whims. It turned out the original color was this wholly unremarkable green. It’s apparently trademarked now, so if you fancy remodeling your kitchen, you can get it in Benjamin Franklin Green. He had nothing to do with picking the color; it just happened to be something he saw. Anything and everything is apparently worth preserving if you’re famous or historically significant enough.

The windows have received a similar treatment. Franklin famously took airbaths. He was convinced that a healthy body needed to regularly be exposed to the cold, but he couldn’t stomach the thought of actually taking cold water baths. So he’d sit in front of his windows, stark naked. I didn’t fully understand the significance of this fact until I saw the actual windows and how close they are to the house across the street. The house paid extra for windowpanes that resembled the ones during Franklin’s time, lumpy and streaky in places. This makes the harsh afternoon light mottle in ways distinctive and subtly different from the beginning to the end of the year. I don’t find the airbath trivia as interesting as most visitors seem to, but it means that the House paid special attention to the windows, and for that I am thankful.

The bannisters of the House are intricate on the ground and first floors, places where the residents would receive guests. By the third and fourth they became increasingly minimal; by the fifth, the servants’ quarters, there is hardly any decoration to be found. Franklin never would’ve gone up so high, but his mere presence on the lower floors was enough to justify preserving the higher ones. In each room, the window covers were built so that they completely, solidly covered the windows at night, and could be tucked and folded cleverly into themselves during the day. The front door is protected, not just with a lock, but with two deadbolts at the top and bottom, and a corkscrew to wind a chain through (to make it more difficult for an intruder to slice through the chain, as Tara explained when she saw me examining it.) It was not Franklin’s job to secure the windows or front door at night, and yet they too survive.

The House opens vexing questions about history that are only compounded in Benjamin Franklin’s own life. Just look at his placement on the hundred dollar bill, a reflection of the paradoxical legacy he left. On one hand, he seems so accessible, the most down-to-earth of the Founding Fathers. His portrait on the bill shows him in his natural, receding hair, not the powdered wigs you see on George Washington or Alexander Hamilton. He seems wise and friendly, a glimmering of good humor always on his lips. He’s remembered as a bastion of common sense — the man who told us, “Three may keep a secret if two are dead.” However, the hundred dollar bill also has some distance of reserve. It’s not always in most people’s wallets. You don’t hand one over to buy a burger or a beer. It’s a reminder that, as neighborly and likable as he might seem, Franklin also was renowned for his intellect, curiosity, and drive. He founded a fire department, post office, library, and Ivy League university, each among America’s first. And his personal life stubbornly resists certainty.

Franklin lived in this London house for nearly 16 years. He intended to stay just six months, but he kept extending his trip. One reason his stay might’ve been so long, so the story goes, is because he found a surrogate family in his landlady’s household. Margaret Stevenson was a widow who rented the extra rooms in her house to lodgers like Franklin. She had a daughter named Polly who Franklin took a liking to and tutored informally.

The House offers tours where recorded audio plays in each room. An actress playing Franklin’s landlady’s daughter Polly speaks alternating lines with the recording, which is all Franklin. If you pretend that Franklin is just out of sight as he speaks, you can imagine that you’ve been transported back in time to 1760 and are getting to eavesdrop on their conversations.

The landlady’s daughter angle seemed unnecessarily convoluted to me, so I asked Tara, wouldn’t it make more sense to go ahead and just hire someone to play Franklin instead? No, as it turns out. A Franklin impersonator is not like a Santa impersonator. There are real, historical facts about his life that nitpicky visitors might dispute. It might sour people’s experiences if the House’s Franklin has a personality that contradicts what they’ve always carefully imagined for their favorite Founding Father. Visitors never come in with any preconceptions of Polly, or indeed, any knowledge that she had even existed. She’s a blank slate who can easily take on whatever mood the actress is in that day. The second reason Tara mentions? “There are simply more young female actresses looking for work than elderly men.” Sometimes, the most convenient history prevails.

The House has two actresses to play Polly: Olivia and Nikki. Olivia has a shock of bright red hair. Sometimes when she’s in a rush, she puts on Polly’s wig lopsided, and her hair shines through brightly. Nikki hates her job, which you can tell because she steamrolls through her lines as quickly as humanly possible, not seeming to realize that her conversation partner is a prerecorded voice, so her speed just causes these massive, awkward gaps. It doesn’t actually allow her to get home any faster.

After the tour, there is time for visitors to ask questions. Despite all of the things this house has seen and weathered, there is one question someone will inevitably ask, provoked by the beauty of our actresses: “So, um, did the landlord’s daughter — ” “Polly?” “ — Yeah, Polly, did she and Franklin ever, you know?” Officially, we say the records are sparse, that Franklin, an expressive man who wrote mountains of letters, never said anything directly about his relationship with Polly. If the visitors press, I’m meant to direct them to Walter Isaacson’s Franklin biography. Isaacson deals with the speculation by saying there is no concrete proof, but an acquaintance of Franklin’s did claim to have pictorial evidence. The “evidence” turns out to be a sketch of a man, a woman in his lap, and a bookshelf behind them. The figures are vaguely humanoid, and the bookcase is the only thing a person should identify with any confidence. Isaacson included the sketch itself in his book, and it’s enough for readers to conclude that there is nothing on record of anything other than a friendly relationship.

Unofficially, what do I think? I think people have so much trouble articulating how they’re feeling even today, sitting face to face. I think you don’t realize the truth until years later when you’re walking and the fullness of what must’ve happened hits you like a bag of bricks. Our texts show when people are typing, our instant messages show when people have read our messages, photos we send self-destruct as a matter of course. But we are still so lost on telling people how we feel because we’re not so sure ourselves. And yet, as museum staff, we’re expected to somehow be able to piece together bits of paper, scraps of decaying fabric, and tell you about the fullness of Franklin’s life, whether he ever so much as thought about a pretty, lively girl.

What about Deborah, Franklin’s long-suffering wife? While he chose to spend 16 years in London, she remained in Philadelphia for her entire adult life. He sent her letters, not as often as you’d perhaps want to see from a dutiful husband, that ended with some variation of “Cannot make it back, Truly yours, Ben.” Who knows what their marriage brought them? Her portraits are always from later in life, with a drooping chin and a bent, resigned posture. People ask me what the deal was. “So, did he ever really love her?” That’s a heady question for an unpaid intern.

Paintings of Franklin’s famous kite experiment show him accompanied by an inquisitive boy around the age of seven. This is supposed to be William, his illegitimate son, who in truth would have been around the age of 21, an impetuous, ambitious young man with a father who was impossible to live up to. William was a staunch Loyalist, becoming Colonial Governor of New Jersey, and was exiled to England after the Revolution. He too had an illegitimate son, William Temple, who in turn fathered an illegitimate son and daughter — an entire branch in shadow on the Franklin family tree. Franklin’s easily quotable autobiography (“Early to bed and early to rise”) is dedicated to William, but their political differences caused their estrangement during the later part of Franklin’s life. The only time Franklin saw his son William in his last years was so that William could sign some legal paperwork. For the Founding Father that seems the most level-headed, wise, and collected, this longstanding rift is hard to reconcile.

Even for Polly Hewson, the secondary character the House is most interested in, there are gaps lasting decades. Only the parts of her life where she intersected with Franklin are fully illuminated. And yet, we have actresses that play her. We know her name and that she was intelligent, provoking, fun, light. We know that she married a surgeon who ran an anatomy school and buried human bones under the house. We have a cruddy sketch of someone purported to possibly be her. It is a meager pile of knowledge, but it surely puts her at the 95th percentile for what we know about people in centuries past. Seen that way, it seems to be rather a lot — rather more than I might be able to hope for.

In a curious way, the best moments of being in the House reminded me of lessons from Franklin’s earliest job as a printer. In the 1700s, a printer would read through handwritten text and pick out each of the letters from trays of typefaces, arranging them upside down on a tablet. He would bolt this tablet into the printing press, ink a roller, and make countless copies. It was easy to make errors during this laborious process, and these errors became the foundations of many book historians’ careers. They’re able to examine a pamphlet and deduce which individual was in the workshop that day, based on idiosyncrasies in kerning, common typos, and frequently omitted commas. They can figure out how many people the printing press employed and how many days each person worked. If a broken letter shows up frequently, historians can estimate how many copies of each letter a printing press had, using that to parse out the economics of running a print shop. These imperfections, stamped out thoroughly by computers, give us a piercing view into a bustling print shop, centuries ago. There’s a nice, redemptive message here about mistakes and how illuminating they can be.

I learned to embrace the many times my interactions with the House felt imperfect, because it simply refused to behave the way I was expecting it to. The original floorboards creaked and caved under my every step, and I never stopped thrilling at the recognition that they were heavily worn by the generations of people that had walked on them, starting from Franklin and before, and continuing up to Tara, Nikki, and Olivia. My footsteps also contributed irrevocably to the pattern of wear, even though the impact was indiscernible to me. Sometimes, because the doors were so heavy, I’d reach for one, miss, and be thrown back by my own inertia. The last stair on the first floor was a few centimeters shorter than the others, and I constantly had to remind guests to watch out so they wouldn’t trip. I was always chiding myself for my clumsiness, but also noticing how in each botched interaction, Franklin came alive. It became ever easier to imagine him going about his day — laughing at a joke in a letter in front of his huge, mottled windows, getting home and stomping the snow off his boots, shivering in the rain. During my summer, I would forget to eat, get hungry and cranky, leave a mug of tea steaming, forgotten, in the break room, worry about my future, roll my eyes at Nikki’s dramatic demands, crack dumb puns. He could’ve done all of those things in the very rooms I was in. What’s more, I even got to see the parts that Franklin himself would never have encountered. The modern-day women’s restroom is in the basement, converted from what used to be the kitchen. A bottle of lavender hand soap sits next to the oven, which juts out at an unexpected angle and has long since retired from baking Franklin’s breads. The names of the bakers have long been lost to history, but every time I accidentally bumped into the oven, I was reminded forcibly of their existence.

Being in the House made it easier to understand that Benjamin Franklin was never just one thing all of the time. It can be easy to put him on a pedestal: Founding Father, polymath, larger than life. It’s also easy to take the opposite impulse — to scoff, turn up your nose, and cut him down to size. Sure, he flirted with inappropriately young women, fathered a bastard and chose to stop being a father to that bastard, and was imperfect to his wife. But the flash of insight that visitors sometimes got, on rare days when Olivia’s acting was her liveliest, the recording most convincing, and the weak, gloomy sunlight most conducive to imagination, was that Franklin could be all of these things at the same time. The same rooms that saw him snapping and losing his temper were the ones where he carefully invented the bifocals and the glass armonica and fretted about the future of young America. Every single part of the House, whether an original feature like the floorboards and the slanting stairs, or a careful replica like the paint and the windows, serves as a reminder that though people may not be so careful about their legacies, they all leave one nonetheless.

Granted, I was only in the House during working hours, the very times when Franklin would have been most likely to be out. The House ceased to be residential nearly a century ago. I don’t know what it would’ve been like to actually live there — what it looks like on the slow march to sunrise. I don’t know how it performs in thunderstorms in the middle of the night. Whether the streaky windows catch the lightning just right, making everyone wake up and gasp and shiver a little, before the clap of thunder rolls down, and they can cozy back into their blanket nests.

But I’ve seen enough to finally understand the House’s strange alchemy, the way Tara’s belief that some understanding is “good enough” actually turns into something real and profound. There really is only one way to experience that transformation, though. Come out of one of the many entrances of Charing Cross Station onto the Strand. Turn onto a spindly, shrunken street named Craven. Knock on the big door, louder — it’s hard to hear from the back. Wait for someone to unlatch both deadbolts and un-corkscrew the chain. They’ll grunt a little and then open the door, carefully (it’s heavy). With any luck, then you’ll see it.